Steve and Bridget Tennes, both veterans, have served their local community through their family farm, Country Mill Farms, since 2010. They grow apples, peaches, cherries, blueberries, sweet corn, and pumpkins, and they host community events throughout the year.
For years, they also sold their produce at a farmer’s market in East Lansing. Their customer service was so impeccable that the city invited Country Mill Farms back year after year.
But then something changed. And now the Tennes family has found itself in the midst of a legal battle with East Lansing.
Steve grew up at Country Mill Farms in Charlotte, Michigan—he was born the day after one of the apple orchards was planted. The two met in ROTC when Bridget was studying to become a nurse. After both serving in the military—Steve in the U.S. Marine Corps and Bridget in the U.S. Army—they decided to move back to Michigan to take over operation of his family’s farm where they are now raising their own children.
“Our family farm here is very personal to us,” says Steve. “One of the things we really enjoy about our family farm here is [that] we are able to raise our… children here at the farm in accordance with our faith.”
And they do just that. Their Catholic faith shines through in everything they do at the farm, where their mission is “to glorify God by facilitating family fun on the farm, and feeding families.”
One way they fulfill their mission is through the annual Pick a Peck for People event, where they invite groups, families, and individuals to come to Country Mill to pick as many apples as possible. The Tennes family then donates those apples to local food banks, providing fresh fruit to families through the winter.
They also employ and provide quality, exceptional housing for the seasonal workers who are considered part of their farm family. And they actively support the Farmer Veteran Coalition, which helps veterans enter the farming profession after military service.
In August 2016, someone posted on Country Mill Farms’ Facebook page, asking about their beliefs on marriage. Steve and Bridget are Catholic, so they answered honestly, expressing their belief that marriage is between one man and one woman.
Officials in the City of East Lansing would not tolerate the Tennes’ different viewpoint. Starting in December 2016, they began to push the Tennes family out of the city’s farmer’s market.
First, these officials told the Tennes family that they would face protests if they returned to the farmer’s market. When that didn’t happen, the city stopped inviting Country Mill Farms to their farmer’s market altogether.
And when the Tennes family submitted an application on their own, the city took even more drastic measures. It created a new rule directed at Tennes and designed to disqualify him from the market.
The city had banned Country Mills Farms from the farmer’s market not because of something the Tennes family did, but because of their beliefs about marriage.
In December 2016, the City of East Lansing first attempted to force Steve and Bridget Tennes out of the farmer’s market.
In May 2017, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed a complaint against the city on behalf of Country Mill Farms and quickly sought a preliminary injunction which would require the city to allow Country Mill Farms back in the farmer’s market as the case proceeded. The Court granted that request and allowed Country Mill Farms back in the 2017, 2018, 2019, and now 2020 farmer’s market.
The case is currently in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan. The case is currently set for trial on September 14, 2020.
Country Mill Farms is located in Charlotte, Michigan—about 22 miles outside of the city of East Lansing.
The Tennes family has served their community, not only with their U-Pick programs and fresh produce, but by donating thousands of apples to food banks. All they want to do is run their farm consistently with their deeply held beliefs.
But East Lansing is set on shutting Country Mill Farms out of the marketplace simply because it disagrees with the Tennes family’s personal views. This is a violation of the First Amendment. And it should concern all of us who want to live and speak freely.
The Bottom Line
People of faith should be free to live and work according to their beliefs without fear of being banned from the marketplace.
Maureen Collins is a writer for ADF Legal.